Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lipstick Feminism and the Good Girl Stereotype

An acquaintance of mine is the epitome of the good girl stereotype. A consummate people pleaser, she is quietly deferential to whomever she engages in conversation. Her opinions are always carefully weighed before she proposes them. She makes sure to never interrupt. Our conversations always come across as a question and answer session, wherein I am the interviewer and she is the enthusiastic participant. Careful not to offend, I have never seen her look frustrated, flush with impatience, or show any evidence of a temper.    

In pictures, I've often seen her framed against the backdrop of someone else's wedding reception. Living vicariously through someone else's big day, she beams at the lucky couple, clearly wishing that the experience might someday be her own. In her work and her daily life, she believes that every conflict with another person can be solved with enough face-to-face diplomacy. As is true for some who work in helping professions, she trusts in the system and its ability to solve every problem. I often think of this approach as naive, but she does not. She cannot be swayed to change her perspective for any reason.

I sometimes wonder who she really is underneath it all. I've surmised and postulated privately that she is overcompensating for some perceived personal lacking, but I know I could be wrong. Her attitude is entirely foreign to me. I grew up in a family full of strong opinions, in which it was implicitly encouraged to express oneself openly without fear of censure. Normal, for us, was to show our flaws alongside our strengths. But I've learned enough about human behavior over time to be able to peer outside of my own mindset. I now recognize that "normal" is a completely subjective concept.

It wasn't until I starting reading feminist criticism that I recognized there might be some serious flaws to her approach. If we were speaking only about so-called lipstick feminism and with it forms of outward dress and a deliberately feminine presentation, then that may well be one thing. Behavior that harmlessly conforms to a set standard versus the thought process that powers these decisions is something very different altogether. I think freedom of choice should be granted, within reason. At times a perceived lacking in our own minds reveals more about us than someone else, though sometimes our critique is entirely justified.

In a strictly feminist context, good girls, as defined, perpetually measure themselves against a particularly impossible standard. In their dealings with others, they are careful to never hurt feelings or bruise egos for any reason. I recall a time in my adolescence where I kept regular company with my conservative Christian classmates. The women with whom I frequently interacted were trying to be perfect; perfect for them often meant putting aside their own honest opinions to not hurt mine. Later, I learned that women of a very different mindset were trying to be perfect in their own ways, negating the cultural norms they now sought to consciously and deliberately cast aside.

The analogies I have drawn are not perfect. Even in the conservative Fifties, certain women pushed back against a restrictive cultural standard that preferred they be seen but not heard. Earlier than that, women writers and artists found a platform for their creative output, even as they fought against stereotype and censure. The good girl archetype was never a wholly uniform identity, though it was pervasive enough to consistently worry those who were told they could never quite measure up. Even today, male or female, we fret about not measuring up to a series of cultural benchmarks. Advertisers know how to sell their wares by exploiting our insecurities.      

Establishing a balance, regardless of what form it takes, is difficult. I am constantly aware of making sure I don't paint myself into a corner. Should I go with myself or instead go with a standard I value? I may consciously advance a particular platform, but take great pains to measure it against my own personal experiences. I've found, over time, that if I don't outrun my guide, I won't get myself into trouble. We have a tendency to overreach at times, even if we only intend to emphasize our convictions. If we say what we know and speak to our inward motives, it is difficult for us to go wrong.

No comments: